It was an obsession, Stefan Seltz-Axmacher, founder and CEO of Starsky Robotics, of his quest to develop a viable autonomous truck, in a blog for Medium. But instead of announcing his company’s success, Seltz-Axmacher found himself announcing that the company he founded and had such high hopes for will shutter its doors, instead.
In his blog, Seltz-Axmacher wrote:
In 2015, I got obsessed with the idea of driverless trucks and started Starsky Robotics. In 2016, we became the first street-legal vehicle to be paid to do real work without a person behind the wheel. In 2018, we became the first street-legal truck to do a fully unmanned run, albeit on a closed road. In 2019, our truck became the first fully-unmanned truck to drive on a live highway.
And in 2020, we’re shutting down.
In 2018, we reported that while most companies exploring autonomous trucks were insisting that a driver would still be in the cab for years to come, Starsky was going all-in on the early adoption of Level 5 autonomous systems, moving freight without any human in the vehicle at all.
Seltz-Axmacher placed the blame for Starsky’s demise on a number of factors, including timing, tech adoption curves, and mostly on a industry that he said is seemingly indifferent to new technology:
The nature of the participants in the trucking industry also reinforces the decision to be an operator. Trucking companies aren’t great technology customers (you should see what they use), and no one knows how to buy safety-critical on-road robots. Even if Starsky perfected general autonomy and perfectly validated safety, it would take years to deploy sufficient systems to make the necessary profits.
At the moment, Seltz-Axmacher is in the process of winding the company down and selling off its assets. But, above all else, he sounds sour on the prospect of autonomous trucks coming to the mainstream in the near future:
From my vantage point, I think … no one should be betting a business on safe AI decision makers. The current companies who are will continue to drain momentum over the next two years, followed by a few years with nearly no investment in the space, and (hopefully) another unmanned highway test for five years.
I’d love to be wrong. The aging workforce which will almost certainly start to limit economic growth in the next 5–10 years; the 4,000 people who die every year in truck accidents seem a needless sacrifice. If we showed anything at Starsky, it’s that this is buildable if you religiously focus on getting the person out of the vehicle in limited-use cases. But it will need to be someone else to realize that vision.
You can read Seltz-Axmacher’s full blog here.